“Coolness is having courage” says Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) in the opening minutes of Person Pitch. The simple credo aptly defines an album that is decidedly “uncool” and out of step with current musical trends. As with the eclectic discography of Lennox’s primary artistic outlet, Animal Collective, the music on Person Pitch feels like an aural incarnation of art brut or “outsider art.” His repetitive and simplistic chord structures and naive lyrics recall the damaged brilliance of other “outsider” musicians like Syd Barrett or Daniel Johnston: “When my soul starts glowing / When my soul starts growing / I am as I want to be / And I know I never will stop growing.”
Person Pitch begins with a consistent thud of swelling handclaps and vocal chants, over which Lennox’s voice soars into a deliberate melodic ascent. The music’s texture is dense, with each instrument blending into one another in a warm bed of reverb and tape loops. Unlike in 2004’s Young Prayer, the songs are immediately inclusive and invite listeners to share in the communal aspects of Lennox’s vision. The repetitive vocal calls and pounding rhythm of “Comfy in Nautica” make for an inspiring sing-a-long, while the chopped-up samples and joyous acoustic strains of “Bros” lend themselves to the late-night dance floor.
The song structures can be defined as a sort of “pop-raga,” blending sugary ’60s pop with the repetitive modes of Indian raga. “Good Girl / Carrots” is built on a loop of tribal drums that pulsate rapidly beneath Panda Bear’s heavily echoed vocals. The composition stretches for nearly 13 minutes and reveals itself to be a sound collage of intricate construction. A wealth of dynamically placed samples and atmospheric flourishes dive in and out of the cluttered soundscape, creating a web of sound that continuously evolves and transforms. This piece is Lennox’s tour de force, and its slowly unraveling texture and poignant melodic interludes are a testament to his growth as a disciplined and patient composer.
“Bros” is the other major achievement on this record. Its core melody sounds like a lost Brian Wilson vocal from Surf’s Up or Smiley Smile, complete with rattling percussion and chiming guitar refrains. Lennox’s obvious debt to The Beach Boys has been examined ad nauseam in critical assessments of his work, but here he sounds less like the band and more like the fire-hat-wearing, sand-box-building mastermind himself, Brian Wilson. In the late ’60s, during and after the making of the failed Smile album, Wilson’s music retained a spontaneity and whimsical desperation – a reflection of a man who had surpassed his creative limits. Songs like “A Day in the Life of a Tree” and “Surf’s Up” are both fragile and transcendent, but never predictable, offering spontaneous instrumental and harmonic changes. That is the Beach Boys material Person Pitch evokes most – music that is simultaneously joyous and sorrowful, sweet and damaged, brimming with emotions that seem to contradict one another but manage to cohabitate in a focused release of cathartic expression.
Where Wilson’s work reflected an impending mental implosion, Person Pitch represents an exorcism of Lennox’s internal demons. This is music that invites listeners to share in the artist’s world, to surrender themselves to the repetition of the melodies and to heal the wounds of experience.
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars
Top five “uncool” pop albums
1. Biff Rose The Thorn in Mrs. Rose’s Side: A shambling collection of cabaret-pop songs sung in Rose’s sprightly croon. These songs are mini-masterpieces, brimming with wide-eyed optimism and some truly bizarre and humorous lyrics.
2. Syd Barrett The Madcap Laughs: After getting the boot from Pink Floyd, Barrett pulled himself together and recorded his back catalogue of whimsical and painfully na’ve songs. A hallucinatory aural account of LSD excess and mental breakdown.
3. Daniel Johnston Hi How Are You?: Brilliant, bizarre, inconsistent. Call Daniel Johnston what you will: These songs are poignant and life affirming in all the ways traditional pop is meant to be.
4. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins Cowfingers and Mosquito Pie: A compilation of Hawkins’s best work, running the gamut from full-throated doo-wop to abrasive voodoo chants.
5. Skip Spence Oar: After assaulting a few of his Moby Grape band mates with an axe, Skip Spence locked himself in the studio and emerged two weeks later with a genuinely fucked-up album of hypnotic blues, rural folk and musique concrete.